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Previewing Alabama vs. Arkansas: The Razorback defense

After a dramatic improvement under defensive coordinator Robb Smith in the last two seasons, the Razorbacks still have to prove themselves an SEC-caliber unit

The Arkansas defense is tough against the run, not so much against the pass.
The Arkansas defense is tough against the run, not so much against the pass.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

After years of languishing in the cellar of SEC defensive performances, there's change afoot in Fayetteville. While head coach Bert Bielema has done his best to transform the air attack of former coach Bobby Petrino to his own patented flavor of "ground and pound," one of the biggest transformations required to keep the Razorbacks competitive has come on the defensive side of the ball.

Before the arrival of defensive coordinator Robb Smith, a relative unknown to most of the SEC, the Arkansas defense was nothing short of putrid. No unit excelled, and all were stricken with poor instincts and even worse fundamentals. Broken tackles were the rule, missed assignments were common and explosive plays against Hawg defenders were the norm. For example, in 2013, The Arkansas defense was ranked 11th or worse in all major defensive categories in the conference, and their national rankings weren't much more impressive.

Enter Smith, who instantly changed the defensive culture in Fayetteville, instilling a focus on fundamentals: solid tackling, proper reads, disciplined accountability. That culture shift, combined with the play of two NFL Draft picks in defensive end Trey Flowers and defensive tackle Darius Philon, helped the Arkansas defense skyrocket in regard to not only performance, but reputation. In 2014, the Razorback D ranked near the top of the conference in every major defensive category (rivaling defensive stalwarts like Bama and LSU) and finished the season in the top 10 nationally in total defense and scoring defense.

The Arkansas defense became a strength rather than a liability, capable of not only holding opposing offenses in check, but in producing big plays of its own. The 2014 Arky team was ranked seventh in Bill Connelly's "havoc" defensive metric, which measures the percentage of defensive plays that end in a tackle for loss, forced fumble, pass defended or interception. Of 821 defensive snaps, the Razorbacks created havoc plays on 167, or 20.3%, of them. That percentage was well above the national average of 15.8%, putting the Razorback defense in elite company nationally.

The Arky defense also made it a point to become more physical. Nowhere is this more evident than in the unit's astronomical improvement in run defense. In 2013, the Razorbacks ranked 78th in the nation in regard to run defense, allowing 178.4 yards per game. The 2014 marked a dramatic improvement, as with a renewed focus on aggressive play and simplified assignments versus the run, the Razorback D allowed only 114.6 yards per game on the ground, good for 12th nationally.

How did the Razorback defense accomplish such lofty goals? Through personnel development and a focus on fundamentals. They don't do anything flashy, and their roster is not loaded with NFL caliber talent. But in the SEC, fundamental, hard-nosed football still goes a long way, and Arkansas' defense is built to attack what Alabama's offense does best. Will they be successful against a Tide machine that is beginning to churn at full throttle? Let's take a closer look...

The Roster

Arkansas has a tough task in recruiting, wedged between the state of Texas and its eleventy-billion FBS schools, LSU to the south, the rest of the SEC to the East and Oklahoma to the north. However, Bielema and his staff have been able to recruit adequate talent to operate within his philosophy both offensively and defensively, and the 2015 Razorback defense is adequate if not spectacular in regard to overall talent.

The Razorback defense plays a base 4-3, employing four defensive linemen who have responsibility for not only rushing the passer, but defending the run by shedding blocks and making plays rather than soaking up blocks from the offensive line. Whereas in a traditional 4-3 one may expect to see tackles serve as space-eaters while the more athletic defensive ends apply the bulk of the pass rush, the converse is true with the Arky defense in 2015. The heaviest portion of pass rush instead comes from senior defensive tackle DeMarcus Hodge (6-1, 340 pounds) and his fellow tackle, junior Taiwan Johnson (6-2, 290 pounds). Hodge is currently second on the team in sacks with one, along with 3.5 tackles for loss.

Defensive ends Tevin Beanum (6-4 280 pounds), a sophomore, and junior juco transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-3, 280 pounds) are active, high-motor players who play exceptionally well against the run, sealing edges and forcing the action inside towards the tackles. Beanum leads the team in sacks currently with 1.5 and three tackles for loss. Ledbetter, a former NJCAA All-American at Hutchinson Junior College in Kansas, has been a welcome addition to a defensive line trying to replace the aforementioned NFL talents Flowers and Philon, as he has 27 tackles with four tfls thus far in 2015.

Behind those starters, Smith uses a growing rotation of linemen in much the same way that Alabama subs its big men up front, though there is a greater drop-off in talent when the Hawgs do so. However, defensive line is the deepest unit on the defense, nine players who have played in meaningful situations this season. The defensive tackle rotation is bolstered by senior Mitchell Loewen (6-5, 275 pounds) sophomore Bijhon Jackson (6-2, 325 pounds), freshman Armon Watts (6-5, 295 pounds) and four-star recruit Hjalte Froholdt (6-5, 290 pounds). JaMichael Winston (6-5, 304 pounds) and junior Deatrich Wise (6-2, 270 pounds) provide second string depth at end.

The linebacking corps is rather non-descript outside of one exception: junior middle linebacker Brooks Ellis (6-2, 242 pounds). Ellis is the heart of the Razorback defense, and rightfully so, as his instincts and skill set would make him a starter on any team in the SEC. The Razorbacks' leading tackler thus far in 2015 (34 tackles), Ellis is sometimes overlooked because he is not asked to rush the passer but rather remains underneath in the middle against both the run and the pass. While some would suppose this role has something to do with Ellis' mobility or speed, such a supposition would be incorrect.

Ellis can cover the field from sideline to sideline, and is among the nation's best linebackers in coverage on short routes and the flats. Ellis is responsible for making sure the defense is correctly arrayed, and he flies to the ball, snuffing out running backs who have the misfortune of piercing the middle of the Arky defensive front. Ellis can cover any tight end that offenses can throw at him on short and intermediate routes. Because of his ability to lock down underneath routes, the Arky defense has the versatility to bring additional pass rushers while leaving the defensive backs in man. That's how important Ellis is to this Razorback defense...without him, a lot of Arky's blitz packages are adversely affected.

Sophomore sam linebacker Dwayne Eugene (6-1, 235 pounds) and freshman will Dre Greenlaw (6-0, 222 pounds) are adequate in their roles, which includes rushing the passer at times and sealing the edge on run plays.

The Arkansas cornerbacks are experienced, but not necessarily world-beaters in their own right. It's not that they are particularly bad, but neither do they intimidate opposing offenses. Starting at boundary corner is experienced junior Jared Collins (5-11, 172 pounds) with fellow junior D.J. Dean (5-11, 200 pounds) holding down the field position. Collins is easily the fastest defensive back on the Arky roster, and after a few years of starting responsibility and added work in the weight room, he has evolved into a decent defensive back. Early in his career, the main knock against him was his size and lack of a physical game. He rarely won match-ups with receivers in press or jam coverage, and though he has improved in that area, he still struggles when physical receivers run short routes against him. His downfield coverage skills are the best on the team, however, and Bama will have a hard time picking on him with the deep ball. While Dean lacks Collins' speed, he has the most complete set of coverage skills among the defensive backs, combining good raw physicality with fluid transitions and quick hips.

Senior strong safety Rohan Gaines (5-11, 195 pounds) is a heavy-hitter despite his somewhat smaller frame for an SEC safety in the modern era. Gaines, who is a bit of a liability in coverage, is a demon against the run, as he finds himself committed to the box routinely. He has good ability in terms of reading gaps and anticipating running back routes, which gives him an enhanced ability to hurl his diminutive frame at backs at full speed. Freshman free safety Santos Ramirez (6-2, 202 pounds) was a bit of a sleeper coming into the season, but has climbed the ladder to a starting position with solid play. Though a freshman, he has proven himself the Hawgs' best option at free safety, with good coverage skills and decent play against the run.

Possibly the most versatile defensive back on the roster is sophomore nickel Henre' Toliver (6-1, 186 pounds), who is subbed in routinely, especially when the Hawgs face spread formations with four-wides. Toliver is used in coverage, run support and in the pass rush, and he has excellent instincts and ability. When the Razorbacks face a super-sized receiver, Toliver usually draws coverage due to his own size and his physical style of play. His physical presence allows him good traction against the run, and he is currently tied for second on the team with four tackles for loss to go with one interception.

How the Arkansas Defense Can Stop Alabama

When the Razorbacks see Alabama in an obvious run formation, expect to see the standard 4-3 look: Smith will load the box with a safety and hope to outman the Bama blocking scheme in the middle of the field.

Ultimately, because the Razorback defense doesn't have elite speed at the edges, the defensive scheme requires that the outside linebackers work in tandem with the defensive ends to force the run back inside towards the cluster of big bodies between the tackles. Teams that have the speed to get outside of forced edges have success running the ball, and success running around end opens up the lanes inside as well. Therefore, it will be critical for Arkansas to seal the edges, which will be no small task against an Alabama offensive line that found its run-blocking groove last week against a very talented Georgia Bulldog front seven.

If Arkansas can find a way to outman, or at the least, keep the offensive line from getting much movement for tailbacks Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake up front, then Arky will rely on the ability of Ellis and possible Gaines to put a helmet on the Tide ball-carriers. In effect, Ellis and Gaines (possibly Toliver depending on the coverage) will be the last line of defense against the Tide's talented runners, as a match-up between Henry's size and any of the smallish defensive backs (or Drake's speed against all but Collins' acceleration) definitely favors the offense.

The Razorbacks will see a heavy dose of the Tide running game this week, as Bama proved last week that the offense still has the ability to assert its will at the line of scrimmage and dominate the front seven of opposing defenses. Run defense is a strength for this Razorback defense, and Alabama will attack that strength early and often as part of its standard game plan.

Conversely, if the Arkansas defense can routinely keep Alabama between the tackles and plug gaps with big bodies like Hodge, it could prove a grind of a game for the Tide offense. Hodge is a space-eater, but an athletic one (as counter-intuitive as that may sound). He anchors the interior of the defense, allowing the defensive ends to play in a disruptive fashion against the run, penetrating and chipping away at ball-carriers on running plays in an effort to slow momentum and allow the cavalry to close. Henry has shown improved burst this year, but if Arkansas can consistently penetrate the back field and cause Henry to change directions or slow a step before contact, then the Razorbacks have more than enough size and talent to limit the Alabama ground game, especially on third down and short situations when a run is the most likely play call.

Make no mistake: running against Arkansas won't be a walk in the park. The Tide O line will need an extension of its performance last week against Georgia to manhandle the Razorback defensive line. This is a run defense that, even when giving up yardage through the air, turns in good performances against the run. Last week against Tennessee, Arkansas allowed 232 passing yards to a reeling Vol air attack, while giving up 133 yards on the ground. Against Texas A&M, the Hawgs allowed 137 yards, and they gave up only 101 yard rushing against Texas Tech the week before. Those aren't Bama run defense type numbers, but they aren't terrible either, indicating Alabama will have to work to move the ball on the ground this weekend.

The pass defense is another story altogether. In many cases this season, the secondary has been outmanned, and without a consistent pass rush to pressure the quarterback, the defensive backs have been asked to play well beyond their collective level of ability.

Arkansas generally goes to a 4-2-5 looks when an offense loads up with wide receivers, but that approach has proven only so effective with the current Razorback talent. Collins still struggles on short routes in which receivers engage before the break, especially on the edges when receivers have plenty of room to break inside where there are undoubtedly pockets without defenders. And while Collins is solid in his downfield coverage, offenses have found that they can pick on Dean with the deep ball with a speedy receiver and a clean route, as he has been beaten deep on several occasions this season.

Schematically, Arkansas likes to play a lot of base quarters coverages (with some thirds, situationally) and a heavy dose of cover-3 against pro-style teams so that a safety can be committed to run support. Expect to see some man free coverage from the Razorbacks as well, at least until Alabama proves it can consistently torch the Arky defensive backs on short and intermediate routes. It will be interesting to see if the Arkansas defensive backs are up to the challenge of playing much press against Alabama's physical receivers, as against big-bodied guys like Richard Mullaney and O.J. Howard, blown attempts at press could result in big plays or routine third-down conversions.

As previously stated, Arkansas will hope to control the middle short- and intermediate-range routes with their adept linebackers, specifically Ellis. This is a tactic that has had moderate success for the Razorbacks, as with confidence in Ellis' ability to snuff out slants and screens underneath, Smith can dedicate his defensive backs to other responsibilities, such as helping out over the top to prevent his corners from being stuck on islands of man coverage, or using the quick defensive backs in the pass rush. Expect to see Toliver used as a blitzer several times in the game, as the Razorbacks like his speed against the lumbering tackles.

For whatever reason, the Arkansas defense plays a great deal of deep zone in standard passing situations, possibly as part of some "bend but don't break" philosophy or as a way to counter the inability of the defensive backs to consistently and effectively play press coverage. Routinely, one will see the Razorback defensive backs and linebackers (even Ellis) drop into a zone 10 yards from the line of scrimmage. Alabama's short passing game will be able to take advantage of the seams between zones underneath, as quarterback Jake Coker has done a good job in the last several weeks with the short passing game.

The Result

Alabama will attempt to assert its will in the running game early, with mixed success. After all, the Razorback run defense is the strongest part of the unit, and they will do their best to make the Tide's offensive one-dimensional early on. Expect the Arkansas defense to force the run inside when possible, as sealing the edge will be critical in leveraging Alabama into the teeth of the Razorback front.

As the game wears on, however, expect to see the Bama rushing attack gain more traction as the Razorbacks tire and the offensive line gets into rhythm. Last week against Georgia was a good test in running the ball against a stingy defense. The Tide kept hammering, and with the offensive line playing assignment sound football, Henry and Drake had room to do what they do. While Arky has good talent up front, the Bulldogs are probably the most talented unit in regard to depth and roster, and if Alabama could use this approach to good measure last week, there's no reason to expect that the result will be dramatically different this week.

Even if Arkansas is able to limit the run early on, their secondary won't be able to stop a blossoming passing game from doing what it does best: chipping away at yardage with short and intermediate length passes. While the slant may be tough to execute against Ellis' talent in the middle, the flats and edges should be prime for short passing routes. If Calvin Ridley can build on his breakout performance last week, his elusiveness, speed and surprising polish will destroy Collins on the edge. The Razorbacks simply don't have a defensive playmaker who can handle Ridley's athleticism, and if Coker can get the ball in his hands, while working the distribution to Mullaney, Stewart, Drake and Howard, the Arky secondary will more than have its hands full.

Toliver is a wildcard, as he is a weapon the Razorback defense can use to disrupt not only the Bama passing game through surprise blitzes and physical coverage in the secondary, but he's also proven explosive against the run. Expect to hear his name called Saturday, and though he won't be able to single-handed surmount the challenge offered by a physical Tide offense, he can make things more difficult for Coker and company.

Expect this game to go according to the spread, as there's no reason to believe that this Arkansas defense offers Alabama anything it hasn't seen before. Less talented than Georgia (and possibly Wisconsin), without the unfamiliar scheme of Ole Miss, Arkansas won't catch the Alabama offense off-guard in any respect. In fact, this Arkansas defense gives the Alabama offense the kind of challenge in which it seems to relish: big-boy, smash-mouth football.